OLEAN, N.Y. • A double bye in the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament was there for the taking for St. Louis University.
All the Billikens had to do was win at St. Bonaventure on Saturday to advance directly to Friday’s tourney quarterfinals.
SLU led for much of the first half and for most of the first 10 minutes after halftime. Then the bottom fell out.
The result, a 66-57 loss at the Reilly Center, served as a microcosm of how the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season schedule played out for the Billikens. Strong start, frustrating finish.
“We made our bed and now we have to lay in it,” said big man Hasahn French, who had 14 points. “I feel like it’s not the time to hang our heads or anything like that. We’ve got games to win. There is still a lot to play for. We know what we need to do and get done. It’s back to the drawing board … head back to St. Louis, practice, and get ready to play.”
By finishing 10-8 in the A-10, the Billikens’ conference tournament journey will begin on Thursday at the Barclays Center, in New York. SLU (19-12) will be seeded sixth and play the winner of Wednesday’s Richmond-Fordham game, at 7:30 p.m. (St. Louis time).
Virginia Commonwealth, Davidson, Dayton, and St. Bonaventure (16-15, 12-6) earned the top four seeds and double byes.
SLU lamented its lost opportunity Saturday.
“I guess you just have to look at it as one more bump in the road,” said Tramaine Isabell Jr., who led the Billikens with 21 points and 12 rebounds. “Four games in four days is going to be a lot tougher than three in three days. We just need to do our best to win the A-10 tournament. We want to make the NCAA Tournament and we have to do whatever it takes to do that.”
Finishing fourth would have been a consolation prize for a team with bigger aspirations going into the season. Picked to win in the league’s preseason poll, SLU won its first five conference games before tailing off in mid-January.
Upset with how his team played in the second half Saturday, coach Travis Ford gritted his teeth through a terse postgame news conference.
In the words of St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt, the Billikens “bullied” the Bonnies in the first half.
SLU was ahead 27-22 at halftime and still led 40-36 with 10½ minutes remaining.
An 11-2 run that started with 10 minutes, 8 seconds left, put the Bonnies ahead to stay. SLU was 14-1 in games it led at halftime.
“They scored 44 points in the second half. We held them to 22 in the first half. Not good,” Ford said. “We outrebound them by 13 or 14 in the first half — whatever it was, by quite a few. They outrebound us in the second half. Tale of two halves. Give them credit. When it counted, they stepped up and made some shots, scored some points … and we didn’t.”
Asked if he was more disappointed with the Billikens’ second-half performance given the game’s conference tournament implications, a beleaguered Ford simply said, “No.”
And about missing out on the double bye?
“We’ve got to get back and get ready,” he said.
Isabell and French combined for 35 points, on 14-of-26 shooting. The rest of the Billikens shot seven for 36.
More bad offensive numbers? SLU had eight assists to 13 turnovers against a tricky St. Bonaventure zone.
“The first half we were getting by,” said Isabell, who had 13 points over the final nine minutes of the first half to stake SLU to the lead. “We were moving and setting screens. We were cutting. Even though we turned the ball over more than we would like in the first half, we were able to balance that because guys were cutting and moving.”
To French, the Billikens stopped being aggressive and got away from running their offense. They also allowed the Bonnies to get into a rhythm.
“We gave them a lot of points,” French said. “We also gave them a lot of rebounds. We gave them points that they shouldn’t have had and sent them to the free throw line, which is not good.”
Now, a season for the Billikens that started with promise for an NCAA Tournament berth comes down to what happens in Brooklyn.
“I feel like we could’ve (been) better,” said French in reflecting on the A-10 regular season. “Definitely could have. ... But I just feel like we can’t harp on that right now. It’s not for us to look back on the past and say ‘I wish we did this or this.’ We’ve got the tournament to look forward to. We’ve got to go there and just win.”